United States District Court, D. Maine
LAURA S. Plaintiff,
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION COMMISSIONER, Defendant.
LEVY CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.
S. appeals from a decision of the Acting Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration (the
“Commissioner”) denying her Social Security
disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social
Security Act. See 42 U.S.C.A. § 405(g) (West
2019). This appeal raises two issues: (1) whether the
administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred by failing
to recognize Laura S.'s back and visual conditions as
severe impairments, and (2) whether the ALJ's mental
residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
determination was unsupported by substantial evidence because
he relied on his own lay opinion instead of the medical
opinion evidence. Because I conclude that the ALJ's RFC
determination was not supported by substantial evidence, I
vacate the administrative decision and remand the matter for
Commissioner's final decision is the March 27, 2018,
decision of the ALJ. See ECF No. 9-2 at 19-30. The
ALJ's decision tracks the familiar five-step sequential
evaluation process for analyzing social security disability
claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (West 2019).
The claimant carries the burden of production on the first
four steps, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner at Step
5. Purdy v. Berryhill, 887 F.3d 7, 9-10 (1st Cir.
2018). The five-steps proceed as follows:
1) if the applicant is engaged in substantial gainful work
activity, the application is denied; 2) if the applicant does
not have, or has not had within the relevant time period, a
severe impairment or combination of impairments, the
application is denied; 3) if the impairment meets the
conditions for one of the “listed” impairments in
the Social Security regulations, then the application is
Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001).
If the impairment does not meet a listed impairment at Step
3, the ALJ must, as an interim step, determine the
claimant's “residual functional capacity, ”
§ 404.1520(a)(4), (e), which is the most a claimant can
still do despite their limitations. § 416.945(a)(1). The
RFC is used to assess Step 4 and Step 5:
4) [I]f the applicant's “residual functional
capacity” is such that he or she can still perform past
relevant work, then the application is denied; 5) if the
applicant, given his or her residual functional capacity,
education, work experience, and age, is unable to do any
other work, the application is granted.
Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5. Put differently, the steps
ask (1) was the claimant working during the period of
disability, (2) did they have a severe impairment during that
period, (3) did the impairment impose limitations that the
Social Security Administration deems disabling, (4) if not,
could the claimant still do their past jobs given their
maximum capacity to engage in mental and physical work, and
(5) were there any jobs the claimant could perform?
1, the ALJ found that Laura S. had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity beginning in January 2017. ECF No. 9-2 at
22. At Step 2, the ALJ found that Laura S.'s affective
disorder, personality disorder, and anxiety-related disorder
constituted severe impairments, but that other issues, such
as her back and vision problems, did not. Id. at
22-24. At Step 3, the ALJ found that Laura S.'s
impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of
an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1. Id. at 24-25. The ALJ was therefore
required to make a determination of Laura S.'s RFC, and
he found that she had the RFC to perform a full range of work
at all exertional levels, but with the following
[S]he is limited to performing simple tasks in a
non-fast-paced type work setting (no assembly line work),
involving no interaction with the public as part of the job
duties and only occasional interaction with supervisors and
co-workers with no team, tandem and/or collaborative work.
She is limited to simple work-related decisions and adapting
to simple changes in routine work setting.
Id. at 26. Based on that RFC, the ALJ found at Step
4 that Laura S. was unable to perform any past relevant work.
Id. at 29. At Step 5, however, he found that there
were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national
economy that she could perform. Id. at 29-30. The
ALJ therefore concluded that Laura S. was not disabled during
the alleged period of disability, and denied her disability
insurance benefits. Id. at 30.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
must affirm the administrative decision provided the decision
is based on the correct legal standards and is supported by
substantial evidence, even if the record contains evidence
capable of supporting an alternative outcome.
Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of Health & Human
Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996) (per curiam);
Rodriguez Pagan v. Sec'y of Health & Human
Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1987). Substantial
evidence is evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a finding. Applebee v.
Berryhill, 744 Fed.Appx. 6 (1st Cir. 2018) (per curiam);
see also Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154
(2019). “The ALJ's findings of fact are conclusive
when supported by substantial evidence, but they are not
conclusive when derived by ignoring evidence, misapplying the
law, or judging matters entrusted to experts.”
Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999)
(internal citation omitted).